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Why Do Government Projects Fail?

We’ve all been dismayed by the recent failures of Healthcare.gov. I wrote a recent blog about my frustration with government contractors who seem unable to take responsibility for their failures. But that leaves me with the question of why so many government projects fail.

To be honest a lot projects fail in some way or another and big ones fail more. That goes for government as well as the commercial sector. But the government suffers from special hurdles. You could cite the lack of a profit motive or the complicated procurement system that might repel the best of the best in the IT field as the source of the problem. While these reasons are valid, I feel like there’s another problem deeply at the core of the way our government works.

To me the biggest problem has to do with emphasizing process over product. Because we have a divided system of government with many dispersed power centers, it is often difficult to agree on what a good outcome is. Even if the outcome is good, one side or the other still wants to beat it up for political gain. In a commercial environment if you have the support of leadership and can make it work in the end, all is forgiven. In the government, that isn’t necessarily true.

That leads people to push process. Let’s make sure our project meets the OMB regulations becomes more important than does it work for the customer. A project manager or a contractor can say, “Look, I followed all the steps I was supposed to, so it’s not my fault that it didn’t turn out OK.” This reality makes it really difficult to ship a minimal viable product and learn from experience.

There’s good reason for all the process. Transparency, privacy, security, fairness, etc., are all important goals for government. But, they don’t necessarily make it easy to create good customer experiences. The Administration has made some progress in signaling a way forward with its Digital Strategy but it is going to be difficult for government to keep up with the pace of change and customer expectations. What are some of the ways you think government can overcome the emphasis on process over good product?

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Profile Photo Robert Joynson

Process isn't the reason government projects fail. Meeting government process requirements may result in longer delivery times or higher costs when compared to the private sector. It's culture that's behind many of the project failures in government; a culture that is highly risk averse, one that favors status quo over creativity and innovation. It's the culture that stifles people's ability and desire to emphasize product over process.

Profile Photo Mindy Giberstone

I agree that our highly risk averse culture is one of the forces behind the focus on process. Process can also be used to stall a project in order to hinder change. Since I loved Senate Chaplain Black's quotes during the shutdown, I am mangling one of them; Process can become one of the tools in our arsenal in "...the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable."

Profile Photo Erning Han

I also see process can become one of the tools in our arsenal in "self-serving, territory-defending & empire-building.”

“Process” and “products” should not and cannot always be antagonistic. To avoid process being “hijacked” for self-serving or other purposes, we can, as a requirement, engage both internal/external stakeholders/clients to (1) regularly review process/procedures to see if they are still the best and simplest way to achieve policy objectives (e.g. transparency, privacy & fairness), while with least impact on “products” development; (2) change process/procedures accordingly (many of them could be at “interpretation” level) and (3) place stakeholder/client feedback as a key performance indicator (e.g. efforts & response in red tape reduction) for administrators responsible for process/procedures.

Profile Photo Alan Pentz

Thanks for the great comments! We have a whole bunch of reasons here that projects fail that you all pointed out: process adding costs, a culture of risk aversion, political nihilism, process as a tool for hijacking and delay, and some great suggestions on some steps to overcome death by process. I especially liked incorporating stakeholder feedback as a metric although the Paperwork Reduction Act process often gets in the way.

Profile Photo Jay Johnson

I find that problems often arise from putting process over people. Good processes can only help you achieve your purpose if have enable and value the people who perform them. As Peter Drucker remarked, "Culture [people] eats strategy [process] for breakfast."

Profile Photo Megan

I think the lack of merit based hiring and cronyism is behind some of the problems.

We definitely don't see the best people rising to the top in government, but rather those with powerful connections, or those who agree to use illegal or unethical business practices to get ahead at the expense of others.

There is so much political maneuvering in government agencies that it is hard to know how much waste is the result of incompetence and how much is the result or tactics that are designed to slow some bureaucratic processes down even more.

I think we need to start taking the IG reports, the EEO complaints, the Union grievances, the citizen-driven FOIA requests and other "red flags" more seriously. We need to move obstructionist or unethical managers out of key roles, and preferably out of the government completely.

Profile Photo Peter Sperry

To be fair, we generally only pay attention when government projects fail. How often do we focus on those which succeed? The almost complete eradication of socialist totalitarianism as a force for evil in the world is a direct result of US government projects successfully implemented between 1945 and 1992. The interstate highway system, hydro-electric grid and waterways navigation channels all result from successful major government projects. The stunning drop in in violent crime (albeit misreported in the MSM) between 1980 and 2010 has an almost one to one correlation with state level prison construction projects. And those of us in the boomer generation can remember July 20th 1969 when two men using a contraption built on a series of low bid contracts first stepped foot on the moon.

When government focuses on core projects which provide infrastructure, basic services and scientific research, government succeeds more often than not and provides a framework for the private sector to build a more prosperous society. Unfortunately, success in core functions often tempts politicians to take government beyond its capabilities into areas best left to the private sector. Failure is the inevitable result of such huberis and the only solution is a rebirth of humility. We need to accept the limits of government, celebrate the very real triumphs within those limits and recognize attempts to extend government activity beyond those limits are what causes government failure.

Profile Photo Alan Pentz

Jay, I like the culture eats strategy for lunch. A lot of our government agencies struggle with building a good culture. Megan, I agree with preventing cronyism but those very same FOIA requests, IG audits and the like are what make people run to process for fear of getting in trouble. The commercial sector doesn't have the same pressures. Peter, I like the focus on core mission. The question is if government has to go out of those areas for whatever reason, are there ways we can improve its performance? Thanks for the comments.

Profile Photo Peter Sperry

Alan -- No. Government intervention in economic or social issues beyond its core mission will always result in failure. The only question is how quickly and how much damage will be done.

Profile Photo Erning Han

Alan: your point “those very same FOIA requests, IG audits and the like are what make people run to process for fear of getting in trouble” is valid one. Governments (public service) rely primarily on internal reporting and some “remote” mechanisms (e.g. media, elected officials' intervention in addtion to various audits) as feedback for their performance response, with little or no direct inputs from clients/customers whom they actually serve. This situation has cultivated a culture of only reporting/accountable up, risk averse and a "cottage industry" of reporting (often reporting for the sake of reporting). To change such a culture and ensure products/results are meaningful for the citizens, introducing DIRECT stakeholders/clients (external & internal) feedback mechanism as one main component of a performance framework could be the key. For example, any performance report has to contain a section on how clients feedback were sought/received, what response/actions taken and what’s the satisfaction rate for the action/response – which is then linked to bonus, promotion etc. – and the report itself is distributed to the clients for their validation. You are right about the private sectors - they have relied heavily on their customer’s feedback for improving their performance. I don’t see why public sectors could not do the same.

Profile Photo Peter Sperry

Erning brings up a good point about stakeholders/clients. Government wants and needs their input but is not really sure who they are. Are government clients the person who recieves the services, the governing body which authorized the program or the taxpayer who foots the bill? In the private sector tha alignment is fairly tight. The person paying the bill is the client. This is rarely the case in the public sector. One of the major reasons government projects go off the rails is the attempt to satisfy three seperate and often conflicted clients at the same time.

Profile Photo Megan

The internal processes that are supposed to provide checks and balances are manipulated in favor of the institutions. An unethical manager will turn to process to avoid liability, true, but we have a "culture of cover-ups" in government, so these complaints and investigations are really not deterrents.

The IG, the arbitrators, the 3rd party investigators, etc. are all paid by the government, and so lean towards recommendations that are easy to implement and get no one in trouble but the whistleblowers.

I have recommended adding some "teeth" to the No FEAR Act. I think that will help a lot. More here: http://www.whohub.com/meganesque/log

Profile Photo Alan Pentz

I'd love to see more feedback from citizens and government "customers". I often see the Paperwork Reduction Act and other regulations and fears getting in the way of communication with customers.

Profile Photo Megan

I've shared my blog and my whohub log with various members of the GOP. They play a "watchdog" role in government, via Committees like Darrell Issa's House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. There are some changes in the pipeline already with the Military Justice Improvement Act. Please share the link freely: http://dad-memorial.blogspot.com/

Profile Photo Earl Rice

I have been thinking about some projects that I have seen fail over the years:

There was one where the project manager was one of the types that keep being promoted out of projects because they were so incompetent nobody wanted them. But upper levels of management did nothing about the lackluster performance. Then new management came in and put them in charge of the project, they were 3 or 4 levels past their competency, and it failed miserable. They talked a good line, but 2 weeks before the start date, it was suddenly discovered that all the talk was well, just talk. This mandated project had to start from ground zero, and was finally deployed 3 years later.

There was another project, that about halfway through, it was determined that the funding was grossly underestimated. There was no additional funding so the scale was cut back. And because of all the hype about the project and great things was be, turned into a doubled edged sword when it didn’t live up to expectations.

There was another major project, and development had been slowed by unforeseen difficulties. Well, congress got involved on this one and stated that either you field it this year, or we are going to pull the plug (funding). It was rushed into service and then the bugs worked out over the next 2 years.

And, then another system. It worked up to expectations. Then it was discovered that the network couldn’t support the demands of the system, and it became a hindrance rather than a help. What happened in this instance, there were 3 new systems being deployed, and the IT determined that the network could handle each one, but didn’t review to see if it could handle all 3 at the same time.

And, the mentality of personal or political gain is still very much alive in the government service. Push through a project, that isn’t ready, field it, get the tick mark for the bonus and the bullet on the resume, and then move on quickly before it implodes on itself.

And, as mentioned, there is the other side of the spectrum, where status quo is the order of the day. Old timers refuse to allow new systems (and processes) to come in, or at least drag their heals, kicking and screaming, to delay them as much as possible. This is what I will call the “old established guard”. You change the processes or the systems, and suddenly their power base of hoarded knowledge is gone. The playing field is suddenly level as everyone learns the new processes and systems. I have seen this first hand, where an agency is using a major software system that was designed in the late 70s. The old timers are still hanging on to it because it is all they know, and they say it works fine. And, when I remark that it is so old and antiquated you can’t secure it, they just brush it off with “it is such a nice old system, it would be a shame to change to something newer”. But, they are retiring off, so maybe things will change here also.

Profile Photo Jaime Gracia

The realities of the situation make CYA basically SOP.

If a contractor were to take responsibility for failure or poor performance, there is a greater risk of not getting future work. It is just that simple. Accountability is akin to possibly black balling yourself for future work in the federal market, as all that will be remembered is the failure, and the fact they admitted it. Having taking responsibility for poor performance is not only the responsible thing to do, but it is the ethical thing to do.

Of course, holding those accountable for failure is also woefully lacking in the federal environment, on all sides. Only in the federal government can you manage a program that wastes millions of dollars, only to have it fail, and possibly canceled, and the only response seems to be a shoulder shrug.

I, for one, would weigh a contractor who admitted fault, and worked to correct it, less risky. Regretfully, all parties point the finger to continue the status quo and to not rock the boat.

Profile Photo Mark Hammer

It would be folly for me to suggest some monolithic set of reasons for why "government projects" (which can vary widely in their scope, time arc, resources, mission, popular support, adversarial lobbying efforts, etc.) fail.

But I will add to the assorted interpretations offered so far.

One of the commonly-occurring factors in my experience is that those in leadership roles, or those whom the leaders report to, change. Let's be honest. While those in leadership positions are not mercenaries, they are in the roles they have because they find positions of responsibility and authority appealing. So they regularly keep their feelers out for opportunities, and when one comes along, they take it. The allegiance of many in that echelon is not to the project, but to the role and the career.

Once the person viewed as the "champion" of an initiative or project changes, it can easily grind to a halt. That can be because the person who assumes the reins is underinformed about the operational requirements and particulars, and ends up making bad decisions, or perhaps because they don't have the same vision, or any of a variety of other reasons. And as I've found so often in organizations, if you have a bright idea a mere nanosecond before somebody else has the very same idea, it now becomes your baby, and nobody else is going to touch it, or assume responsibility for it, except for you. That sort of thing is not unique to government, or major projects, but happens in all sectors, and at all levels. It's just a lot more disappointing to more stakeholders when it happens in government.